Thursday, October 29, 2009

Clericalism: An Institutional Challenge

I enjoyed my visit with the folks of the Diocese of Nevada. My new friend Rick has posted some generous thoughts about what I shared. Thanks, Rick.

When I arrived for their Annual Convention, I was somewhat surprised to see that I had overdressed for the occasion. There was only one other person in the room wearing a clerical collar. As I got to know them all a bit better, I came to realize that was not accidental. They didn't see themselves as "clergy" and "laity." They were simply the people of God, gathered for ministry. It was a very refreshing perspective.

I want to talk about that division between "clergy" and "laity" that we make in most places around the Church. Consider this a continuation of our discussion on bishops, which grew out of a previous post on authority.

I've been talking with a few folks about possible positions. I look at their "historic" buildings (which are often in need of immediate repair), take a look at their numbers, and am usually struck by that sinking feeling as the realization hits that they can't afford me. Most likely I'll accept a position somewhere soon, but it will probably be in a less than full time capacity.

And that's ok with me. Often it is not ok with the parish, though. To not have a full-time seminary trained priest is a loss of prestige. It means they have failed somehow.

We've got a problem. A serious problem. To explain the nature of the problem, I'll start with an example of the financial reality, even though I think the problem is rooted in something much more deeply troubling than money matters.

To have a full-time professional clergy person on staff costs a congregation about $75,000 to $80,000 annually, if you figure in health insurance and pension payments. That means, if you have 80 families ("pledging units") giving $2,000 a year, your clergy person is going to be half your budget, leaving you about $80,000 a year for maintenance of the physical plant and mission beyond your walls. In some places, that's enough to just get by, but you won't be putting anything away for the long-term maintenance projects that come with the territory when you're in an "historic" building.

Many Episcopal congregations have far fewer than 80 pledges. That's just the reality, especially if you are in a small rural setting. To keep on telling them that they need to grow is not the answer. That not only gives them an inferiority complex, it also makes "evangelism" be driven by trying to balance the budget.

The clergy who serve in these small congregations see the financial reality, and often carry a heavy weight of guilt around with them because they know that they are drawing half the budget. And here's where the bigger problem comes in.

Often, without realizing it, clergy in a small congregation will work long hard hours, feeling that since they consume so much of the pledge income, they need to earn it. They will not only offer the sacraments and visit the sick, but will also offer three classes, make a schedule to visit every member, attend every meeting, get involved in ecumenical events, do the newsletter, change the lightbulbs and mow the lawn.

There's nothing wrong with staying busy. But, much of what many clergy do on a day to day basis can just as easily be done by someone else. And by doing it all, the clergy person is actually taking away ministry opportunities from the rest of the members of the community.

Now, it may be the case that in some places the expectation is that the clergy should indeed do everything. Keep in mind that one of the three shifts we are witnessing is the move to a more "consumer society" orientation. When we begin to see the clergy as THE ministers, then the members become simply passive consumers of ministry. That is not a healthy model for a Christian community.

I've served in quite a few congregations, and, although the "consumer" mentality was not true for all of them, it was the norm. Often, it is during the interim period, when they don't have a permanent priest "in charge" that some congregations come alive. But, when the search ends, they sigh with relief, because now they can stop making those hospital calls, or chairing those meetings, or teaching that class.

Something is not right here.

The Diocese of Wyoming has this quote from Elton Trueblood on their Ministry Page:

If you are a Christian, you are a minister. This proposition is absolutely basic to any understanding of the Christian movement. A non-ministering Christian is a contradiction in terms. The Christian faith is not made up of spectators listening to professionals, and it is not for individuals who are seeking, primarily, to save their own souls. It is necessarily made up of persons who are called to serve as representatives of Christ in the world, and to serve means to minister. Ministry is intrinsic to the Christian life. Ministry is not something added or means to an end; it is central and ineradicable.
Is there a way that we can recognize the gifts of every baptized member of the Church, and allow the full expression of those gifts?

Yes, there is, but it requires some radical rethinking of our whole concept of ministry. Some, especially many of the professionally trained clergy, are going to buck against this rethinking, as it is going to require them to get out of the way.

I'm not suggesting that we simply eliminate seminary trained clergy. They have their place. But possibly that place is more along the lines of being a resource person for the ministry of all the baptized.

As a starting point to rethink our "consumer model" of ministry, I recommend that you consider some of the work already being done in the Dioceses of Alaska, Nevada, Northern Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Western Kansas, Western New York, West Virginia, Vermont, Northern California, Minnesota, Oregon and several others. The concept that they are exploring is usually known as Total Ministry, but is sometimes referred to as Mutual Ministry. It's not perfect, but I think they are moving in the right direction. This idea was all the rage just a few years ago. We don't hear about it so much anymore. I think it is worth considering as one possible way for us to move into the future. Here is how it is described by the Diocese of Northern Michigan:

...we seek to honor the uniqueness of each baptized person and each local community in our diocesan community. We understand that the responsibility for mission and ministry in any place belongs primarily to the people of God in that place. In most settings, we do not send ministry to a community in the form of a professional, seminary trained rector or vicar who might minister to and on behalf of the baptized. Rather, we seek to develop the ministry of all the baptized in each community. Seminary trained persons serve as resource, offering support and encouragement, sharing in the ongoing formation and education of God's people living the Baptismal Covenant.

We use the term mutual ministry to describe this partnership. It is a partnership between God and God's people. It is a partnership among all God's people, among congregations on the regional level, on the diocesan level and beyond to the province, the national church and the world. In all arenas, we seek to extend this partnership beyond our denominational boundaries, working together with our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions as well.

The role of the missioner is not to deliver ministry, but to midwife the birth of giftedness already present in the baptized into ministry for mission. In each congregation a unique ministry development strategy is designed and pursued by the members of the congregation themselves, supported and nurtured by the regional missioners...
The Diocese of Minnesota offers some good links here and here.

The Diocese of Oregon has a Total Ministry site here.

The Diocese of Northern California offers a few links here.

The Diocese of Northern Michigan has been engaging this approach to ministry for over twenty years. You may recall that this innovative approach caused a few problems when they elected Kevin Thew Forrester as their Bishop/Ministry Developer. Actually, they selected an Episcopal Ministry Support Team, of which Kevin was only one member. The "process" raised more than a few eyebrows. Then, some of the more toxic blogs found out Kevin practiced Buddhist meditation (lions and tigers and Buddhists...oh my!) and the witch hunt commenced. Old sermons and iffy liturgies were dug up, and Kevin did not receive the required consents.

As you might imagine, the people of Northern Michigan were deeply troubled by all the ugly things being said about them and their choices for their Episcopal Ministry Team. Tomorrow, they will gather for their Diocesan Convention and plan for their future. Hopefully, they will be able to shrug off all the mud slung their way, and will not be tempted to abandon their ideals, which I happen to believe are the way of the future for us all.

Back in 1994 Northern Michigan made some significant changes to the way they run their Conventions. For example:

  • Every baptized person is entitled to seat and voice at Convention.

  • Each congregation (regardless of size) may send four voting delegates.

  • Clergy have vote if they are one of the four selected delegates from the congregation in which they worship.

  • No voting "by orders".

    This should be a fascinating Convention. I think I'll join them. But, for this trip, perhaps I'll leave my clerical collar at home.

    More tomorrow, from Escanaba, Michigan!

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